Knowledge vs. Skills

What is school really for and how do we ensure that all of our children gain…whatever it is they are supposed to gain from it? Among many people I know, it is taken for granted that school is largely a waste of time. Your send your kids there for 6.5 hours each day, and then you spend the rest of the day providing their actual education. Some people spend major money on private schools in a desperate effort to salvage those hours, but what they’re really buying for their child is the right to spend the day with other privileged kids. Back in our hoity toity private elementary school days, another parent told me that the primary benefit of private school was the connections the kids made there. That’s right; my eight-year-old was supposed to be networking.

If this sounds like a pitch for homeschooling, it is not. I for one am not looking to increase my already overwhelming time investment in parenting. I’m looking for ways to alter the educational paradigm that has been in place for, what, a century? The education system is designed to turn out good factory workers. It is inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of students who deviate from the norm in any direction.

Schools do an adequate job of imparting knowledge efficiently, by delivering it to children in groups. My middle school kid absorbs the social studies curriculum along with her peers. Though she often finds the content dull, she learns stuff she didn’t know before and then moves on to other new stuff. It works.

Where the school spectacularly fails is in developing skills. And perhaps it is not reasonable to expect skill development to happen there. Consider, for example, musical instruments. Anyone who has played an instrument or had a child who did can tell you that the instruction they receive in school is just a starting point. If you want to actually learn to play your instrument well, you must take private lessons outside of school. (That’s problematic from an economic standpoint, since it means lower income kids are denied that opportunity, but that’s another topic.) In the case of music, the school serves an auxiliary function by providing a group with which the kids can use the skills they’ve gained through lessons and practice.

For my kid, that works great, and music is by a factor of about a million her favorite part of middle school. She works with her private teacher and progresses at her usual lightning speed, and then she goes to school and works along with her classmates on the skills needed to play in a group.

But other skill-based classes do not operate this way. For example, foreign language instruction, which I complained about at length here, is done as a stand-alone endeavor. The teacher attempts to teach language skills to a large group of kids who learn at very different rates, inevitably leaving some of them to struggle and others to suffer through the soul-crushing boredom of endless repetition. Sure, I could hire a Spanish tutor for my daughter and she could race through the curriculum, but she would still have to suffer through a school language class. It’s both a graduation requirement and a college entrance requirement.

We have the same problem with math. My 7th grader is taking Algebra I, which is allegedly a 9th grade-level class. But she mastered most of the content in elementary school, thanks to the parent volunteers who ran the math club. It has been her lifelong experience that math class means staring at the clock while other children learn something she already knows how to do. Surely there must be a better way for schools to handle high-performing students.

But what is it?


About a million years ago, circa 1979, I began my journey through the peculiar American ritual best described as “phony, ineffectual foreign language instruction that will never, ever teach you to speak a foreign language.”

At the beginning of my first year of French, I loved the class. French, so lovely, so glamorous, so sophisticated. I couldn’t wait until I could speak it fluently.

By the middle of the year I hated that class so much that I had become a trouble-maker—a role completely out of character for me. I lobbed small objects at my classmates and smart-mouthed the teacher. But I got perfect scores on every test. That wasn’t hard to do because the class was just. so. easy. The glacial pace of instruction made me want to bang my head on the desk. Instead, I sat with my arms folded and glared.

Four years later I completed my high school French studies. Had I visited Paris at that time (and I should’ve, why didn’t I?) I probably could’ve muddled through, but it would have taken a great deal of patience on the part of the Parisians who had the misfortune to come into contact with my sadly monolingual self. Like the vast majority of native-born Americans, je ne parle pas francais.

Jumping to the present, my daughter Little Bit, now 13 and in 7th grade, has embarked on her phony, ineffectual Spanish studies. Studying a language is important to her. She’s jealous that several of her friends—the children of Asian immigrants—are bilingual. Sadly, she’s been taking Spanish for two months now and has already concluded that she will never, ever learn to speak the language this way. I don’t think she’s resorted to trouble-making, but she comes home and tells me that she got a perfect score on her Spanish test but that it’s no big point of pride because the test was just. so. easy. The pace is glacial. She wants to bang her head on the desk.

Why? Why must it be this way? The citizens of other countries learn to speak other languages—usually English. And English is notoriously difficult for a non-native speaker to learn. They begin in early childhood and prioritize it.

Given the ever-increasing globalization of commerce, should we not place a priority on teaching our students functional skills in key languages? The most obvious candidates: Mandarin (world’s #1 most-spoken language) and Spanish (#2, including over 37 million people in the US).

If you’re going to wait until 7th grade or 9th grade to even begin foreign language instruction, you’re going to have to step it up from the glacial, head-banging pace that torments your most capable students.

At this point I would like to offer my apologies to Madame McKirahan, my junior high school French teacher. My behavior was execrable. But so was your class.